04.03.09

Linan: Stomping Grounds of the Chinese Small Town Upper-Middle Class

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 1:49 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 2nd entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

After two and a half days, I had seen all I had intended see in Suzhou, and decided to head south, to the city of Linan.  Linan is a county-level-city (县级市) located a one-hour bus ride outside Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Zhejiang province.  An old friend of mine from my days in Fuzhou, Yang Yang, had recently relocated there to manage a womens’ spa and had invited me to come visit for a few days.

Most Chinese people from provinces other than Zhejiang probably have never heard of Linan.  As a county-level-city it is considerably smaller than prefecture-level-cities such as Wenzhou and Ningbo, and accordingly gets less press and attention.  And unlike Suzhou, there isn’t much to attract would be tourists to Linan either.  What Linan does have though is money.  Much like Fuqing, where I spent my first 15 months in China, Linan is one of the many anonymous small urban districts dotting China’s coastal provinces which have seen their local economies explode in recent decades, mainly as a result of trade and migration with the West.

This is what much of the streetscape in Linan looks like, very much similar to that of other wealthy small towns in Southeast China.  Street traffic usually reveals a healthy mix of pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, minibuses, and German luxury cars.
A good portion of Linan’s housing stock consists of the infamous white-tile-style architectural layer. This is the building style which permeated far and wide throughout the Middle Kingdom in the decades immediately following the Reform and Opening Up.  These days, most coastal cities have stopped using the white tiles for new buildings, in favor of more modern (not to mention stain-resistant) materials.
Since starting my work in Chicago as a medical interpreter, I’ve had to learn a great deal of medical vocabulary which previously had been of little use to me in China.  One benefit I am finding is that I am now able to understand the posters which blanket residential blocks in small towns like Linan. This one is advertising a cure for gonorrhea and syphillis with results promised to show within 4 hours.
Linan is tiny and compact.  It took me just over half an hour to walk from one side of town to the other.
On the edge of town is a river and a little riverwalk if you will.  Along the riverwalk are what appear to be apartment blocks, right?  Wrong!  Most Chinese urbanites live in what we might think of as two or three bedroom condos.  But in cities like Linan with high levels of affluence and relatively modest populations, the 4-story single family dwelling is quite commonplace.  Since most Chinese still live predominantly in multi-generation family units, there is usually a storey for parents, one for grandparents, and another for the single child, often with an extra storey or two for face.
Like most cities in Southeast China, Linan is built in the valley of a surrounding foliage covered mountain range.
By several statistical measures, Zhejiang is currently the wealthiest province in China.  Although it isn’t the exactly fanciest “riverwalk,” this type of public infrastructure would be hard to find in the county-level-cities of poorer provinces.
As their economies are based primarily around light industry and agriculture, and their climates do not necessitate a great deal of coal burning, small towns in Southeastern China also provide for some of the clearest skies in the Middle Kingdom.
Most of the industry that does exist in Zhejiang (and there’s a ton of it) centers around small trinkets, textiles, shoes, and the like.  If you live in the West, chances are a sizable portion of your wardrobe was made in Zhejiang.
Here are a few more of the less scenic pics from my stoll down the Linan riverwalk.
more relatively blue skies
Unbenownced to me before my visit, Linan’s local specialty is one of my own personal all-time favorite foodstuffs, 笋干 (sun2 gan1).  Made of pieces of baby bamboo dried out in the sun, 笋干 is essentially the sausage of bamboo.  Unlike sausage however, 笋干 is not eaten plain, but rather is used as an ingredient in cuisine, often cooked up in a wok with oil, garlic, peppers, meat and/or vegetables.  笋干 can be ordered in many restaurants in Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong, however, I’ve found it a bit difficult to come across in other parts of the country.
Another local specialty I discovered in Linan was 昌化刀切面 (chang4 hua1 dao1 qie1 mian4).  These are long, flat, noodles served in a savory broth along with green veggies, carrots, and mushrooms.  Like most Chinese noodle dishes, a variant meat/protein can be selected as a topping including beef, pork, chicken, tofu, pork lungs, and pork kidneys to name a few.  I chose the 笋干 (bamboo sausage).
In the afternoon of my first day in town, Yang Yang took me on a walk through the central shopping district of Linan.
One of our stops was at a music/book store where we checked out the selection of American “classics” on sale to Chinese consumers.
…as well as new additions to the canon.
Here’s a quirky storefront which caught my eye.  The Chinese characters literally read “clothing, pull (attract), customers.”  However, pronounced aloud they have a pronunciation which sounds like the Chinese word for “Iraq.”
Yang Yang and I decided to settle a long day of shopping and wandering with an evening meal of hot pot.  I’d imagine most people reading this have experienced hot pot before, so no need to go into detail, but one hot pot “accessory” which has recently won my favor is fried mantou with yogurt dipping sauce.  As milk provides the perfect counteraction to spicy food, this snack is an excellent complement to a flaming hot pot.
Alright, I had a little bit of reservation about posting this, but figured it would be of interest to fellow Chinese food enthusiasts.  Most of our hot pot experience consisted of the typical sliced beef and lamb along with a collection of green vegetables.  Yang Yang however, decided she wanted to order pig brain. I had never personally eaten brain before, but figured I would give it a shot.

As the brain is mostly fat, the texture was accordingly quite soft.  I’d liken it to a more coarse, solid form of pudding.  The flavor itself was bland, and did not have the organ-esque aftertaste of other animal innards.  If I hadn’t been cognizant of what I was eating, I probably would have thought it was quite tasty.

One fairly accurate way to gauge the relative wealth of a Chinese city is by the volume of businesses targeted at those with expendable income, including karaoke bars, massage parlors, and specialty tea shops.  Accordingly, Linan has plenty of all three, often with entire streets devoted purely to entertainment.  So after a day of shopping and brain eating, Yang Yang, myself, and several of her friends made our way to the karaoke bar. During my first years in China, I avoided KTV like the plague, but over time I have found that if you actually embrace it, and kick off your “this is so lame” premonitions, it can make for some quality entertainment, provided your blood alcohol content is in double digits.
After KTV, Yang Yang and I went out for another pastime of the affluent China upper middle class, the foot massage.  More than merely a massage, your feet are first bathed in scalding hot water, wrapped in hot towels, throroughly cleaned, rubbed down and then massaged.  Afterwords they feel as clean as the day you were born.  All for the cost of around $5 USD.
Like my job in the barbershop, foot massage parlors provide a glimpse at the class divide in modern Chinese society.  Trained in techniques such as back massage, foot massage, and ba guan, virtually all of the employees in these establishments are from rural areas in lesser developed provinces such as Anhui, whereas all of the clientele are upper-middle class locals and business travelers.
On my final night in Linan, Yang Yang took me out to one of her favorite dive restaurants.  Due to its coastal location, Zhejiang food is often known for its emphasis on seafood, as well as bland and sweet flavorings.  However, Linan with its location away from the ocean, has a cusine more similar to that of inland provinces.  This first dish consists of 笋干 (bamboo sausage) cooked with pork and hot peppers.
Another local specialty of Linan is this blackened dry tofu (豆干 dou4 gan1).  Commonly eaten individually as a snack, it can also be stir-fried with vegetables as pictured here.
And finally…Chinese potato latkes!  Usually 土豆饼 (tu3 dou4 bing3), as Yang Yang ordered it, refers to a snack bearing little in common with those potato pancakes my mother used to cook for Hanukkah.  However, these Linan latkes were absolutely fabulous!  Perfect texture and just the right amount of spice.  Enough to convince me to go back to Linan, if nothing else, just to eat.

After 2 days in Linan, it was now time to meet up with James L. Goode (aka Tex), my travel buddy for the next week.  Destination:  Anhui.  More to come soon.

15 Comments »

  1. raq China said,

    April 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    great review of Linan.
    I eat small fried mantou often (they are sooooo good) and they are always served with condensed milk, never suannai. Was it really suannai? i have to check it out

  2. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    April 3, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    I’m not sure exactly what the stuff is called in English, but calling it condensed milk is probably a lot more accurate than calling it yogurt or suannai. Thanks.

  3. Tang Tang Canada said,

    April 4, 2009 at 12:49 am

    The masseuses I had last year in Suzhou were both from Anhui. Is it such a poor province or are they just better with their hands there ?

  4. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    April 4, 2009 at 8:40 am

    @Tang Tang

    Anhui is both very poor and quite populous. A good percentage of the masseuses, vegetable sellers, construction workers, and other migrant laborers in the Yangtze River Delta are all from Anhui. They leave Anhui because they can make more money in the surrounding wealthier areas.

  5. lei United States said,

    April 5, 2009 at 3:39 am

    i believe it looks like condensed milk.

  6. Hek China said,

    April 5, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    Yo! Please tell me you picked up that Kenny G album!

    hek

  7. Michael United States said,

    April 10, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    As a lover of latkes, you’ve really made me want to try this hangzhou variety. Also, I just found the The Latke-Hamantash Debate on wikipedia, which is pretty funny. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Latke-Hamantash_Debate

  8. CHRIS (China quality inspector) China said,

    April 11, 2009 at 10:05 am

    Ahah..the foot massage must be so relif

  9. Limin United States said,

    June 3, 2009 at 9:41 am

    I was brought here by seaching “Lin’An” in wikipedia.

    I’m a Lin’anese just got back from China, and my son’s teacher asked for some pictures and introduction of my trip to China(of course in English), I’m glad you have such a detailed introduction about Lin’An, you have a good sense to catch the most important thing of a place.Foot masage , medical treatment posters, interesting name of the store. Dried bamboo shoot is always my favorite, I brought a lot back to USA.

    Thank you for such a detailed article about Lin’an with good observation. I enjoyed reading it.

  10. Limin United States said,

    June 4, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Ben, a qustion for you:
    Why you translate 笋干 as “Bamboo Sausage”? As I know, salt is the only thing they add when making 笋干. no other spice. And they bake it until it’s dry(usually not on electric appliance or sunlight, but on fire or burned charcoal )

    So I think “Dried bamboo shoot” is more proper. :-)

    I’m so excited to know an American who knows and likes ” 笋干”(which a lot of Americans would complain it’s too chewing) that’s why I came back and left another message.

  11. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    June 4, 2009 at 10:46 am

    @Limin

    The reason I referred to 笋干 as “bamboo sausage” is because it provides what I think is a relatively accurate cultural analog for Westerners who aren’t familiar with this type of foodstuff. Usually in the West (at least in the US I can say) the majority of the dried food we eat is meat (sausage) as well as occasional dried fruit. When you tell your average American that you ate “dried bamboo shoots,” even though it is a more accurate translation, they will usually have little concept of what it is you are describing. When you describe it as “sausage, but made out of bamboo,” Westerners generally have a better idea of what you are talking about. Same goes for tofu. I have recently begun describing it to those who are unfamiliar as “cheese, but made out of beans, instead of milk.” While this isn’t necessarily 100% accurate, I’ve noticed it presents a better mental picture than simply describing the tofu making process. And by the way, Linan has some of the best 笋干 and 豆干 I have ever tasted. If I hadn’t been traveling with only a backpack, and still had 6 or 7 more stops to go, I would have filled my bags with the stuff and brought it home with me.

  12. Limin United States said,

    June 4, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Got it. Then “Bamboo shoots sausage” is more accuate. You can’t eat bamboo(if you are not a panda), but you can eat bamboo shoots.

    Have you tried 绿茶(green tea) and 小核桃(pecan or walnut). Usually Lin’anese won’t let you leave without knowing those local produce.

  13. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    June 4, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    @Limin

    I tried the 西湖龙井 in Hangzhou and the mo feng (not sure the characters) in Huang Shan, but didn’t try any of the green tea in Linan. Good stuff? My 3 years in Fujian has made me rather partial to Wulong, but I still like a nice green tea now and then as well. I didn’t try or see the 小核桃. Good stuff? Actually, my friend I was visiting in Linan is 东北人, so that would make sense why she didn’t tip me off on all the local snacks.

  14. Limin United States said,

    June 4, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    “mo feng’ should be “Mao feng”(毛峰)which means leaves just sprout.
    Not sure is good for you. One man’s food might be another’s poison, right?

    just search “临安小核桃” in google image, you will know what is that.

    Americans are lasy, they just don’t like to eat s.th with shell. But we Chinese love those foodstuff like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds in shell. That’s why Chinese is so diligent and smart? Just kidding. :-)

    You seem to have an interesting job.(Oops, I spent too much time on your blog today. My boss might complain) I wish more Americans can have enthusiasm like you to find out the true side of Chinese and Middle Kingdom(Where you get this term for “中国”), not just from CNN with “colored-eye”.

  15. maliliana Indonesia said,

    June 25, 2012 at 4:40 am

    hi,

    i want to know the name of the foor message at lin “an

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