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Monday, April 23, 2012

A Meeting with the Chairman

  Total time on subway: 98 minutes
Total time in queue: 103 minutes
Total walking time: 18 minutes
Total time to view the corpse: 42 seconds

I think it was back in 1988 that a book appeared in the UK called "101 Uses of a Dead Cat". Way before anyone had really got stuck in to the internet and how it was going to change our lives, this particular book went viral, in the sense that as soon as it hit the bookstores, fur began to fly and everyone seemed to have a copy of it.

Inside its covers you could read about, and see, drawings of some funny, some certainly, outrageous, and some downright sick cartoons. Politically correct it certainly wasn’t!

I was reminded of this tome recently when browsing a web site called topviralpictures.com. One particular picture struck a chord: that of Chairman Meow which had been viewed some 19,000 times and had been given the somewhat low score in my opinion of 2.8 out of 5.

I determined then and there to stop making excuses and to go visit the real Chairman Mao, not least to cross it off my list of places I ought to see before I finally leave Beijing – hopefully some way off.
Mao’s Mausoleum (Maosoleum???) lies on the central Beijing meridian upon which many of Beijing’s most important structures have been built, including the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Drum & Bell Towers, and Olympic (Birds Nest) Stadium.

It’s at the southern end of Tian’anmen Square, a stone’s throw from Qianmen – probably the most magnificent of Beijing’s city gates.

It is said that Mao actually wished to be cremated, but like the bodies of Lenin, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, he never got to have a say about what happened to his body; the powers that be decided that instead his corpse would be embalmed and put on display in a glass case.

Mao Zedong died on September 9th 1976. Work on his mausoleum was started about two months later and was completed by May 1977.

China lacked the technology for embalming the body and because they had had a spat with the Soviet Union, they couldn’t very well go cap in hand to ask them for assistance. But luckily they managed to persuade the Vietnamese to spill the beans, since they had used the Soviet embalming system to preserve the body of Ho Chi Minh. Even so, many people are firmly of the opinion that the body of Mao Zedong isn’t actually real at all, but just a wax model.

The mausoleum itself is imposing in an ugly sort of a way. Outside there are a number of Soviet-realist sculptures urging the masses onwards and upwards to a communist utopia.

The mausoleum is only open for about four hours each day and when the body is not on display in its glass crystal coffin, it is lowered down into the temperature controlled vaults to preserve what is left of the body/waxwork as best they can.

Queues are amazingly long, however. You’d wonder that such a sight can draw this many people; but though his policies – especially the Cultural Revolution - may well officially now be regarded as a mistake, there is no denying that many Chinese still hold the man in great awe and respect.

Entrance to the mausoleum is actually free, but you cannot take bags and cameras inside, so the locker service located across the street on the east side of Tian’anmen makes a tidy little sum each day storing people’s belongings, with a hefty fee of 5 yuan just for a digital camera.

As the body is open to visitors from 8am till midday, I set my alarm clock early but sleep right through it, and finally emerge from under the duvet at just before 9. But your favourite blogger isn’t called ‘Fast’ for nothing; and by 9.30 I’m out of the door and on my way to Qianmen which I reach in 48 minutes.

Already the queues are miles long, snaking backwards and forwards around the Square in tight formation. Two police vans are situated near the end of the queue with a posse of cameras mounted on their roofs. There are a plethora of cameras also mounted on the lighting poles.

But the queues are pretty well behaved, while minders in smart suits keep the masses in order by shouting through loudhailers at them. The long procession moves at a determined pace and we can all feel that we are making progress moving about 20 metres every minute. It’s actually quite fun people-watching. There’s plenty to look at – granny is in need of a pee, so her daughter gets someone to keep their place in the ever moving queue and walks her over the street to a pubic loo. The minders then help granny & daughter to find their place back in the queue again, perhaps 200 metres further on.

There are loads of coach parties queuing up – each party wearing identical baseball caps in an assortment of fluorescent orange / yellow / green / and of course red colours.

As we approach one of the lamp standards near Qianmen, there is a notice shouted over the loudspeakers that cigarette lighters are definitely not allowed inside the mausoleum and suddenly there are loads and loads of them discarded along the side of the ever shuffling queue. This causes a problem a little later on given that we are still a good half hour away from the main entrance and the Chinese do love their cigarettes. So there then follows a ballet of people rushing back to retrieve a lighter, lighting up another gasper and then throwing the lighter back down again onto the pavement. Surely someone could make a fortune by retrieving all these lighters and flogging them off in the market place?

All the while the queue shuffles on relentlessly with people now pushing closer and closer starting to get restless to reach the entrance. It is now that I wish the Chinese would worry more about their bad breath and body odour, for it is an unfortunate fact that many – especially those from the provinces - don’t appear to use toothpaste or antiperspirant. Perhaps this is why they spend so much time spitting in the streets?

Eventually we turn the last corner and more instructions are shouted over the loudhailers. I see all around me that people are taking out their national ID cards so in preparation I also get out my “Foreign Expert Certificate” waiting to show it to…. Well, I never find out. It appears to be just an excuse for the plain clothes police to inspect the credentials of anyone they don’t appear to like the look of. They apparently like the way I look, so my FEC goes straight back in my pocket again, uninspected.

Next up, we have to go through a security building. It’s a bit like boarding a plane at Gatwick Airport back in blighty. Phones, keys, pens… you name it … are placed in a little tray while we then parade through metal detectors to see if we are trying to smuggle in a camera or any other naughty bit of equipment. The alarm goes off as I walk through the gate and so I step over to one of the girls armed with a sniffer wand. But she’s not interested in me and waves me on with a smile, stepping forward instead to frisk a guy with a limp, as if he is high on their most-wanted hit list.

Next we pass stall after stall selling white flowers wrapped in cellophane – 3 kwai a pop – which I am surprised to see that maybe one third of all the rubberneckers take advantage of. A notice tells us all to be quiet and to take our hats off (I haven’t said a word, and I have no hat). A granny says something to her daughter and immediately a posse of minders shhhhs her to be silent and insist that she removes her hat. She sulks silently to herself.

We mount the steps into the outer hall where there’s a white statue of the Great Helmsman sitting cross legged and looking munificent. Everybody surrenders their white flowers into a huge pile of them propped up against the base of the statue. 3 kwai for that! I wonder how long it is before the flowers are recycled for the next batch of admirers and can only take my hat off (while keeping silent, of course!) to the powers that be for introducing that little money maker!

Yet another notice exhorting us to “Please keep quiet don’t taking pictures” and “step in turn” as we finally step into the inner sanctum wherein lies the crystal coffin. As photographs are banned, I have lifted this particular pic off an official web site, but I reckon it was taken long ago.

Mao looks like a reject from Madame Tussauds; and with just the head visible, there is precious little in the way even of an outline of a body under the flag (unlike in this photo).

In his book "The Private Life of Chairman Mao", Dr. Li Zhisui describes how, on the death of Mao, he sent a researcher to a medical library. "She found a preservation procedure: a large dose of formaldehyde. We duly injected 22 litres, 6 more than the formula called for, just to be sure. When we finished at 10:00am, Mao's face was as round as a ball and his neck was the width of his head. His ears stuck out at right angles. Formaldehyde oozed from his pores.

"For another five hours," Li wrote, "the team worked with towels and cotton balls to force the liquid down into Mao's body. At last his face looked normal. But his chest was still swollen. So we slit his jacket and trousers in the back to cover his new bulk. The body was then draped with the red Communist party flag and placed in a vacuum sealed crystal casket."

I’m not surprised that many people question whether what we are looking at is in fact a real corpse or just a wax work. But I guess we will never know.

Within 42 seconds we are walking out of the inner sanctum and through the rear outer hall, ready to step once more into the daylight.

Ahead of us is the Qianmen. Immediately ahead of us are a couple of rows of souvenir stalls selling Mao tack such as Mao keyrings, Mao plates, Mao fans - anything, in fact, that can possibly have a picture of Mao printed onto it.

I head on back towards the subway station, being now able to cross off this experience from my list of places to visit. All the while I can’t stop myself from wondering if I could ever reach that magical number to write about … 101 uses for a dead communist leader.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Search of the Flying Watermelon

You want to go where, an office colleague of mine asks me dumbfounded, unable to believe her ears. Whatever for?

This is a question I find myself fielding more and more these days as word gets out that this crazy foreigner is working his way around Beijing’s many and varied museums.

If ever one were to doubt that the Chinese have a sense of humour, then I now have proof positive that they have simply oodles of it, especially in the area of Daxing to the south of Beijing. Every year at the end of May, Beijing holds its annual watermelon festival there. But for those who simply cannot contain themselves that long throughout the year, they will be relieved to hear that Daxing is also home to the country's only watermelon museum.

Why should I possibly want to go there? Because, as mountaineer George Mallory replied when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, it’s there.

With information regarding this museum pretty scant on the web, I cannot for one minute imagine what they can possibly fill an entire museum with, purely on the subject of watermelons. But I am determined to find out.

The first challenge is to work out how to get there. But your super-slooth soon discovers it’s a little further south of the end of the Daxing Line which connects through to subway line 4. Except that the Daxing Line has now been subsumed into Line 4, despite many signs still telling you that you are travelling on the Daxing Line.

Unlike the other lines of the Beijing Subway, which are completely state-owned and operated, Line 4 was built and is managed by the Beijing MTR Corp. Ltd., a three-way joint-venture which includes the Hong Kong MTR Corporation, which operates the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway. Among the most visible differences in the management of Line 4 is a ban on food and beverage consumption inside Line 4 trains and stations. (No such ban exists for other Beijing subway lines.) Perhaps the thought of visitors to the watermelon capital spitting out their melon pips on the carriage floors was uppermost in their minds in the early planning stages of this line?

Daxing turns out to be quite some way south. In fact it takes over an hour from central Beijing to get to the end of Line 4/Daxing at Tian’GongYuan before having to travel a further 15 minutes by bus. But with a subway fare to anywhere in Beijing of just 2 kwai (about 20 pence) and the bus fare of 4 jiao (4p) I can revel in the value for money I am getting as the train trundles on and on and on…

It’s a beautiful sunny day, and everywhere the blossom is out – a range of whites, yellows, pinks and reds – but what catches the eye is that here with the sudden coming of summer, the blossom precedes the shooting of the leaves on the trees, so that the flowers stand in stark contrast against the woody branches, with hardly a leaf in sight.

Arriving in Penggezhuang Township, there is a dirt track to what is obviously the museum. Can this really be the way in?

There’s no mistaking the museum, though. It’s shaped like a huge watermelon set off by two large green leaves designed to look like a pair of fluttering wings. Named “the flying watermelon”, its design motif apparently symbolizes China’s ambition of flying out of its home markets towards the international arena.

With strong visual impact, the entire building not only integrates contemporary architecture’s aesthetic viewpoints, but also conveys artistic appeal and classic museum culture. That will bring you fresh feeling and surprise,” I later read in a snazzy brochure.

But surprised and fresh though I may be, the problem still arises how to get in. In the end, genius prevails and I make my way up the road to what turns out to be the local Police HQ. It looks onto the back of the flying melon, so your favourite cunning blogger decides to risk the long arm of the law and cut through the surrounding gardens.

As I circumvent the main building, I cannot help but be bowled over by the endless watermelon motifs carved into balustrades and walkways.

They’re kind of cute in a funny way.

I have read that the large garden surrounding the building and through which I am now making my way has several dozen valuable watermelon varieties growing there. Well, that’s as may be, but given that it was snowing in Beijing just three weeks ago, I am not surprised that there is not a watermelon plant in sight, though the beds appear to have been freshly dug presumably in preparation for a mass planting any time soon.

This outdoor exhibition area is also home to a Sculpture Park (well, that’s what they call it). Depending on your point of view, it too is cute and fun, or incredibly tacky. I’m afraid I find myself veering to the latter viewpoint.

I do, however, quite enjoy Mr Pig tucking into a watermelon (many of my fans know that I like pigs);

But I do wonder what on earth a sculpture of a boy about to have a pee has to do with a watermelon museum… until I remember that watermelons, of course, are mildly diuretic.

Not just that, but in 2008 a study was released showing that watermelon has ingredients that deliver Viagra-like effects to the body’s blood vessels and may even increase libido. So maybe instead of having a pee, this little boy is staring in awe at the effects that a watermelon has on his own tackle?

Scientists know that when watermelon is consumed, citrulline is converted to arginine through certain enzymes (well, that’s what Wikipedia tells me). Arginine is an amino acid that works wonders on the heart and circulation system and maintains a good immune system. It also boosts nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, the same basic effect that Viagra has, to treat erectile dysfunction and maybe even prevent it. As the report pointed out, watermelon may not be as organ specific as Viagra, but it’s a great way to relax blood vessels without any drug side-effects.

So there you have it girls. If you see your BF pigging out on watermelon, it could be that you’re in for a very good evening…

I step through the side door into the building which turns out to be spookily deserted. No one anywhere in sight. It’s like a watermelon version of the Marie Celeste. To the left and right of the main lobby area one can enter the western or eastern hall. I choose to go east.

It appears I have chosen to enter the “Agricultural science popularization museum for the juvenile”, which a booklet that I pick up from the main reception desk tells me “integrates technological, academic, interesting and interactive elements and highlights the on-the-spot participation and interaction in order to enable juvenile visitors to learn about the agricultural technology through visit plus recreation and touch plus thinking mode to inspire their dream and anticipation to the future agriculture.”

I learn that watermelon was indispensable in ancient China. People made all kinds of products with it, such as beauty, medicinal, food and decorations. There are more than 1200 varieties of watermelon around the world and in China, cultivation began before the 10th century. Today it’s the world's single largest watermelon producer, with around one third of its production coming from the counties surrounding Beijing.

In China, watermelon rinds are stir-fried with olive oil, garlic, chilli, onions, sugar and rum. It is also stewed or pickled. Watermelon jelly is a traditional Beijing dish which is made by boiling sugar and jelly with water and then mixing in sliced cherries and watermelon juice. This is then chilled before serving. Watermelon juice can even be made into wine, though I suspect it’s pretty weak stuff (though I have to admit I have never tried it).

At one end of the gallery is a collection of watermelon art, with classical Chinese drawings and paintings depicting the fruit in all its glory.

There are also pictures of watermelon banquets…

not to mention watermelon desk calendars …

Watermelon is even turned into toothpaste!

Curiosity now draws me to the west hall. And the first thing that hits the eye is a model of two camels carrying their masters and loads of watermelons to market. They don’t look like the camels I’ve been so used to in the Arabian Peninsula. These camels, of course, have two humps and look much cuddlier than their Arabian counterparts.

The western hall takes itself much more seriously than the Juvenile hall to the east. Here there are models upon models upon models of watermelons in all shapes and sizes. Is it possible to get watermelon model fatigue? Yes; I can state quite unequivocally that this is indeed a danger when entering the west hall.

And not just watermelon model fatigue; but watermelon seed fatigue too. The seeds are a very popular snack in China and are a good source of protein, polyunsaturated fats and minerals, especially magnesium and iron. But different though each variety may be, I’m afraid by the time I have looked at my x-millionth seed tray I find myself fast losing interest. Perhaps if I cannot sleep tonight, I can count melon seeds instead of sheep…

I lose count of the number of cabinets filled with these wretched seeds and instead turn to the display of seed packets that I presume are on sale somewhere, though I never do find out where…

There’s even a model of a satellite (Chinese, of course) that is used to monitor the growing of watermelons in some way, though my Chinese is not good enough to decipher exactly how. But it looks pretty and makes a change from the rows upon rows of plastic watermelons.

Finally all good things must come to an end. I leave the deserted building and head out into the sunshine once more, skirting around to the Police HQ and walking nonchalantly out of the gate (always a good idea to walk nonchalantly when entering or exiting a police station, no matter where in the world it is).

It takes another two hours to get home, but once again my life has been undeniably enriched. Once again I can wow the boring expats in the staff canteen who never go anywhere, from what I can make out, with tales of daring-do. Once again I can tell you, dear fans, of all the amazing things there are to do and see here in the northern capital. And once again I can ponder on some of the ridiculous things that people the world over get up to.

A Watermelon Museum?

But why FGS?

Why ever not?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Museum Not Suitable for the Faint of Heart

As regular readers of this blog will know by now, China is hardly short of a museum or three. It is said that there are over 230 of them in the BJ area alone … something your favourite blogger is working hard to verify for you.

For those with an enquiring mind, an enjoyment of the frankly macabre and a strong stomach, you can’t really do better while in Beijing than visit the Police Museum - a four-storied building with a floor space of 2000 square metres which contains 1,500 pieces on display out of a collection of more than 7000 articles covering “CSI Beijing” from the end of the Ming Dynasty until the present day.

The museum itself is divided up into four “categories”- the Hall of Beijing Public Security History, the Hall of Criminal Investigation, the Hall of the functions of different branches of Police and the Hall of Police Weapons and Equipment. Sounds exciting, what?

Of course, there are a few significant absences in this relic strewn collection; you won’t find much mention of the Cultural Revolution; and you certainly won’t see any reference to “1989”. But what the hell? I was still intrigued enough one day to get up before 10am so that I could pay it a visit before having to go in to work in the afternoon.

The Beijing Police Museum is housed in the former First National City Bank of New York, a Classical western-style building located in the former Foreign Legation Quarter, notorious for being the battleground of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. It’s only about 4 minutes walk from Tian’anmen Square along a back-lane behind the Beijing Public Security Bureau.

Over the past 100+ years, policemen’s duties have included transportation, fire fighting, maintaining civil archives, safeguarding citizens and investigating, catching and gaoling criminals. So who wouldn’t be willing to fork out 5 kwai for the privilege of taking a shifty through some of their must-see exhibits?

The exhibition takes the visitor through the earliest days of Public Security in Beijing just after the 1949 Revolution and the chaos after the capture of the capital, through to today’s police force, together with some of the equipment used over the years.

In the downstairs lobby is a pretty horrid looking symbolic column known as the ‘Soul of the Police’. It stands 6 metres high and is made of bronze, weighing in at some 5000 kilos. Depicted on it are the sword and shield that are the emblem of the police, placed between a phoenix (symbolising reincarnation) and a Xie Zhi (a Chinese mythical animal which symbolizes law and order). It’s meant to represent the promise of the Beijing Public Security Bureau to provide the people of Beijing with security and peace and be their guide to achieve this. Well, that’s what it says anyway!

The very first exhibit you come across is a photo commemorating the 1949 revolution depicting party officials together with the masses gathered at Tian’anmen to witness the declaring of the Republic by Mao Zedong. The canon displayed with it is an original piece used for firing honorary shots during the ceremonies.

A replica of the key that the Kuomintang general Fuzuoyi surrendered to the liberating army and some cannons used in the founding ceremony are also displayed. And this is one of the problems with this museum – you are not usually told what is real and what is a replica, not that it matters that much I suppose…

If your official history is at all lacking, you have no need to worry. There are plenty of English language explanations – such as this one that tells you that “Before the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, it planted a large number of stragglers and disbanded soldiers, bandits, local ruffians, hoodlums and despots in Beijing left over from the old society…. The public security organs in Beijing smashed subversion schemes one after another while establishing a new administrative system of social and public order and ushering in a situation of unprecedented stability…”

During the Cultural Revolution – now officially regarded as a “national catastrophe” – over 100 Beijing police officers were “wrongly executed” for “counter-revolutionary” crimes. Thousands more were tortured, or lost their jobs – 9,685 in all. And on one wall, eagle-eyed visitors will see there’s a yawning gap among the official portraits of PSB directors from June 1966 to June 1977, as if they simply never existed.

The museum contains just about anything you would expect from a place devoted to the police. In the Crime Detection and Investigation Hall on the second floor, for instance, you’ll see fingerprint manuals, brushes and ink pads, a multi-wavelength fingerprint differentiator and a computerized image formation system.

You can also see a lie-detector, various handcuffs, whistles, cameras, uniforms and a life-size prison cell as well as a couple of police motorbikes that were the main items of interest for a group of school kids who wanted to pose for photographs sitting astride them and throttling up the revs, complete with their own sound effects.

There’s even the original score of the theme music for a TV cops series, donated by the composer.

Naturally the police were involved in the security surrounding the 2008 BJ Olympics and for some reason there is a collection of Olympic torches on display. Maybe I’m missing something, but wouldn’t they be more appropriate in the Olympic Museum than here in the Police Museum? (Maybe someone pinched them and was too embarrassed to give them back?)

With China being such an open country now, it’s perhaps difficult to remember that it wasn’t very long ago that this was anything but the case. Huge areas of the country were off limits to foreigners, and naturally the police made sure that the rules were obeyed.

Just as you are settling down comfortably into seeing exactly what you expect to see in this museum, you come across some displays that frankly you would never see in most museums in the west, due to their pretty gruesome nature.

Perhaps the most shocking is a section on some of the punishments meted out to the bad guys. If you regard yourself as one of the faint hearted, I’d suggest you read no further…

For instance one of the punishments used about 100 years ago involved surgical torture… and they even have a photo of a flayed woman, tied to a stake, whose breasts and thighs have been chopped off (the woman, that is – not the stake.)

Not grisly enough for you? There are plenty of other pictures of explosions (and their aftermath), serial killers, amputations, decapitations and more. How about a photo of eight women’s corpses? Or photos of mass executions with men tied to stakes at the Worker’s Stadium, ready to receive a bullet to the head? Or even a body found on the luggage rack of a train?

Hey they even have some of the actual murder weapons such as this kitchen knife used to dismember a corpse…

If you want to research what a skull looks like after it has been shot at, or split with a cleaver, again you have come to the right place…

Of course, the museum isn’t just about the villains. It’s also about heroes… and a special 8 metre high wall weighing 26 tons has been built to commemorate 58 policemen who died in the line of duty between 1949 and 2000.

But something about this museum got me really puzzled. On the ground floor everyone was taking pictures of anything that moved (or not as the case may be). No problem.

On the second floor I was snapping away at lie detector machines, finger printing techniques, and of course, the hall of nasties. No problem.

On another floor there were glass cabinets stuffed full of semi automatic weapons, pistols, grenades, you name it…it was there. After I had snapped my first photograph of various assault rifles, a policeman came hurrying over waving his arms and yabbering away with every second or third phrase containing the word 没有 (Méiyǒu = No). The implication was clear. And I can’t say I was that surprised. So I smiled graciously and put my camera away.

But the most vehemence was reserved for when I wanted to take pictures of policemen’s helmets from around the world (there was even a pair from the Greater Manchester Police), not to mention a key ring from the Brazilian police force.

Hey… I could photograph dismembered corpses and murder weapons all I liked. But a key ring from Brazil? No way!

I guess I still have an awful lot more to learn about my Chinese hosts…

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cooking Liaoning Dumplings - Beijing Style

It was the popular 19th century American columnist Fanny Fern who first coined the phrase “The way to a man's heart is through his stomach” – though as Republican politician Robert Byrne retorted, "Anybody who believes that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach flunked geography"!

[An aside: I’ve often wondered that if the way to a man's heart really is through his stomach (and I have to say, I have my doubts), what organ do we go through to get to a woman's heart?]

I was waltzing with my friend Lixue at my Saturday evening dance class, when she asked me if I liked dumplings (it’s amazing the range of questions one has to field from some of the girls there.) Naturally, I told her I did. I mean, I’m a guy and I love my stomach. And at that self-same moment, the only recorded coherent sentence from Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria came to my mind: “I am the Emperor, and I want dumplings”.

And so it was that we decided there and then to set a date for me to be taught how to make Liaoning dumplings (for Lixue comes from this north eastern province of China which borders on the DPRK). Liaoning is famed for its food; and according to Wikipedia, Liao Cuisine is one of the eight famous cookery styles of China. Jiaozi (dumplings) and noodles form the staple foods of the area.

Before the appointed hour of her arrival, I rush out to Wumart to stock up on some of the necessaries that she has given to me as a shopping list and then do my gentlemanly duty of meeting her from the subway station and escorting her back to my place.

Alas, she is suffering from a sore throat, so before we knuckle down to the cookery lesson, I give her my own tutorial in sore-throat-manipulation: a mixture of honey, whisky and hawthorn juice, warmed up in the microwave and gargled down. This seems to do the trick and before one can say akhem akhem, she is busy chopping my prized pieces of pork fillet into a fine mince that would surely be the envy of many a butcher’s shop in the west.

While Lixue is busy hacking the poor pig into submission, it is my duty to fine chop an onion (no tears, big boy!) as well as a leek and some pak choi (that are standing in as a cabbage substitute), together with a few slivers of ginger…

and before you know it we have a dumpling mix whose aroma fills the kitchen. (It is only half an hour later that someone – mentioning no names, of course – realises that “we” forgot to add any oil to the mix; so a bottle of olive oil is extracted from the cupboard and a dollop is added. No one, we are sure, will be any the wiser.)

It is only at this point in time that Lixue admits to me that she has never made dumplings before in her life. Oh, she has seen her mother do them countless times, but she has always wondered if she could do them too – and guess whom she has chosen to be her first guinea-pig?

Now she tells me!

I quickly do some mental calculations. On the basis of what-is-the-worst-that-could-possibly-happen scenarios, I know I have enough eggs in the fridge to satisfy the most demanding of appetites, so we decide to carry on and see what we end up with. For who was it who said that it is (usually) better to travel hopefully than to arrive?

Next up, it’s play-dough time. I search my addled brain for any dough jokes I can come up with, but realise they wouldn’t translate well into Chinglish so instead I shake the flour canister (a.k.a. an old peach nectar juice bottle) as Lixue adds water and kneads the resultant dough into a ball.

The dough ball needs to “rest” a while after being pummelled into submission. Now, if you look at all the top chefs doing their cookery shows on TV, there are loads of them slurping back a few mouthfuls of beverage as they do so; so I work out this is a good time to introduce my Master Chefette to the joys of Gin and Tonic – except, of course, that this is China, so we settle for Gin and Sprite, which actually isn’t a bad substitute.

Already the thought of Liaoning Dumplings is tickling my taste buds. What is the difference between a Liaoning Dumpling and a dumpling from any other part of China, I ask her. Errr, not a lot, it would seem!

Next up I am shown the art of rolling the dough into flat discs. It looks so easy the way she turns the dough ball under the rolling pin, which goes back and forth over half the dough each time until she ends up with a perfect circle of wafer thin skins.

She picks up some of the filling and dollops it onto a skin …

and before you know it she is squeezing the skins and innards into raw dumplings.

Huh! What could be easier, thinks the Boy Wonder. As if reading my thoughts, Lixue stands back and “suggests” your favourite blogger has a go. Visions of a 1970s TV game show called The Generation Game immediately spring to mind, in which an expert shows the contestants how to do something seemingly easy-peasy and then stands back while the audience falls about laughing at the pathetic efforts of the contestants trying to remember the sequence of events – in this case flattening the dough ball, rolling the rolling pin halfway over the ball, gripping the resultant dough shape, giving it a semi turn and applying the rolling pin again and again until such time you (should) end up with a perfectly shaped disc.

I am left wondering if anyone can really tell, just by looking, which are my finished dumplings, and which ones Lixue has crafted. But by the time we have prepared 37 of the little blighters, there is not an awful lot to choose between them (he says, working on the principle that if you say something with enough conviction, there are always some people who will believe you, however much B-S is contained within your statement!)

[Time for an aside here, as I am reminded after committing the cardinal error of misplacing the chopsticks while working on the dough discs; you can place the chopsticks on top of the bowl…

or propped up against the side of the bowl…

but NEVER can you stick them up straight out of the food. It reminds the Chinese of placing incense sticks when paying respects to their ancestors, and so is extremely bad form / bad luck / bad manners should you ever do this at the table, or even when preparing Liaoning dumplings!]

The next problemette to be solved is how we are going to steam the raw dumplings. We consider using a rice cooker, before we discover there is actually a steaming pot, hidden away in one of the cupboards, which has never seen the light of day for the past nine months to my certain knowledge.

Eventually, some three hours after starting this marathon cookery lesson, it is lunch time. Lixue explains that a soy dip usually tastes better if you add some vinegar into it; and together with a sweet chilli sauce, we are ready for the off.

The looks of contentment / relief say it all. Has Lixue really never cooked a dumpling in her life before today? She assures me she really, really hasn’t. And I have to believe her.

I tell her she is welcome to come back and give me a cookery lesson again any time. But I guess that with her cooking skills, it won’t be long before some stomach other than mine points her in the direction of a yearning heart and she will finally be lost to the members of Gluttons Anonymous for ever more.