Category Archives: all the tea in China

You are what you smell

missing-teeth

Last year the porcelain bridge I’ve worn in my mouth since high school gave out, so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the dentist lately, preparing for some new teeth. As it turns out, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with my dentist.

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He’s the guy that got us into roasting our own coffee beans, so in return we told him about Sean Thackrey wines. Now his new obsession is a gadget called the Coravin, which allows you to “access” a bottle of wine without removing the cork. A needle is inserted into the bottle (“cork strike”) and argon gas is pumped in and the wine comes out. When you pull the needle out, the cork reseals itself, and since argon is an inert gas, the wine will not be oxidized.

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All this is theory, so Coravin’s founder, Greg Lambrecht, who’s more like a cool inventor than a sales person, invited a group of wine professionals plus my dentist, who invited me (we’re “fans” I suppose) to a blind tasting (plus a steak lunch at Morton’s). Classy!

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We were early, so I got to chat with Greg about the company who produces his argon canisters (same company that provides Starbucks with helium. Go whippets!) and what he’s working on next: screw top wine bottles and champagne. He explained that when you force a gas and a liquid out the same hole you get flat champagne. But he’s very close to figuring out a solution. For those wines that use plastic corks he told me the secret was to always place the needle in the same hole (HA!), store the bottle standing up and it will keep for a month (argon is denser than air), or use *** to seal the hole in the cork. He actually made me promise not to divulge what *** was.

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The tasting consisted of 5 glasses of white and 5 glasses of red (of the same wine). Some of the glasses were filled with bottles that were accessed exactly a year ago, and the others were filled with bottles opened that day. We were told not to look at our neighbor’s notes and not to speak. Some thirty people handling ten wine glasses each is actually a loud affair. Then there was a little bit of hubbub regarding how, exactly, we were all supposed to share the spitting buckets. This was soon addressed, and we got to tasting.

Both of the wines that were served were natural, which meant some variation from bottle to bottle was to be expected. Though last year’s wine may taste a little different, the point is that it’s not something anyone would be embarrassed to serve. The Coravin works incredibly well.

Apparently the percentage of people that can taste the difference is 5%, and apparently I fall within that 5%. I’ve got “Smell-o-vision.” I picked the whites correctly and got all the reds except for one. Bastard! I suppose I’ve had a lot of practice. I live with a dog that can vapor wake and I’ve spent a lot of hours tasting tea. Wine is harder than tea. Your palette gets very tired. I did spit most of the wine out, but I felt I had to drink a little from each glass. By the time I got to the reds, I was ready for lunch. Lunch was a three-course affair with some rare wines thrown in for fun, but it wasn’t lunchtime yet.

I went around the room smelling things. I smelled the leatherette sleeve for the wine bottle that comes with the system. It’s supposed to keep you safe if the bottle you are accessing is one of the 1-in-50,000 bottles that break when the needle goes in. I smelled the paper doowahs that went around the base of each glass to assign it a number. I smelled someone’s bad breath, which my dentist later confirmed was the sign of “perio.” I smelled the soap from the bathroom on the ladies that walked by. This was way too much fun for an event that was free.

I asked Greg how one was supposed to get the wine from a very old bottle, and he gave a demonstration of how to get at the bottle sideways while keeping the sediment untouched. He added that when the bottle gets low, like around 5 ounces, you should do yourself a favor and just pull the cork out and drink the damn thing. Now that’s some no-nonsense advice.

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Tuo Cha gone awry

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If you’ve ever visited a tea factory it will come as no surprise that there can be a lot of variation between bags, or batches of tea. In fact, if a tea farmer serves you tea, and you want to buy some of it, it’s best if you buy from that bag of tea they are holding in their hands. Don’t let them scurry it away into the back, and don’t believe them when they say, “there’s plenty more where that came from.”

Since tea is an organic product, there’s always the chance that over time it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. For Pu’er (and especially raw Pu’er), since it’s stored and aged, there’s years of opportunity for something to go wrong. In addition, Pu’er is sun-dried, which doesn’t quite halt all the oxidation, so over the years it’s still alive, slowly changing and reacting to its environment.

Recently we were able to compare a Menghai 1996 Tuo Cha that someone described as “something wrong, slightly moldy, or else my palette has gone completely off its rocker” with its respectable batch mate.

It was almost too easy. The compression of the “bad” tea was very loose. It crumbled when we went to break it apart. The odor was fine (no mold), and the wet leaves smelled slightly weaker than our sample, but the color of the rinse tells us this tuo cha ran with the wrong crowd.

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The amber color that should be there for a raw Pu’er from 1996 was more of a watered down yellow. It was very clear, which is good, but the color was that of a younger tea. But even younger teas have some kind of flavor, and this tea had no flavor, just a sharp, bitter aftertaste. I am not throwing around the word “bitter” carelessly. I was actually surprised to taste real bitterness in the tea, as opposed to astringency, or a puckering sensation, or other subtle tastes similar to bitter but more complex. Bitter is actually an uncommon taste to have on its own. Sometimes it’s paired with sourness (grapefruit pith) or sweetness (licorice root) but pure bitterness for bitter’s sake is something very special indeed.

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I doubt that the tea was improperly stored, or that anything could have been done to the tea over the years to save it. Sometimes you just lose one.

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Duck breast in my jersey pocket

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Last week while riding down Topanga Canyon I got my first flat as an adult. Technically it was my second flat, as the first one happened in my garage overnight, so let’s count this as my first puncture acquired in public.

The people I were riding with had already gone down the hill, because who wants to linger on Topanga Canyon? It’s quite possibly the dumbest downhill stretch in Los Angeles. The grade is between -3 to -8 and you have to pedal super hard to keep the headwind from blowing you into a complete standstill.

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Of course the nail went into the back wheel but I was more worried about the CO2 cartridge failing than figuring out how to get the wheel back on. I had heard so many stories of cartridges failing, and I only had one, and I’d rather call Uber than ask anyone to ride all the way back up the f**king mountain with a little extra CO2.

Needless to say I successfully fixed my flat, and have been trying to figure out the best way to carry my beautiful little bicycle pump in addition to my one cartridge.

I can’t put the pump on my bike because my bike is so small there just isn’t any more room, and I’m not going to be one of those people who figure “someone’s bound to have a spare tire” (or have 5 bucks to buy me a coffee) so jersey pockets have been on my mind.

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One of my jerseys has a third, tall pocket for a pump, but many jerseys for women only have two short pockets, although some brands provide us with little secret secret areas that are sewn in weird triangular shapes, and nothing normal, as in keys, tampons, credit cards, phone, can fit into them, but someone thinks we women like them.

What I do know is that a Muscovy duck breast is shaped perfectly to fit into a jersey pocket. Yesterday after a great up & down tour of Griffith Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park, we stopped in at McCalls, who packed us up a bag of ice with our duck and away we went, ice water dripping down our back and leg.

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Marinate this jersey-pocket sized piece of meat in soy sauce, sesame oil, and ginger, sear it with Sichuan peppercorns and salt, and then smoke it with lapsang souchong tea, rice, and brown sugar and I’ll do that ride any day of the week, even double-flatted.

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My Google Important folder, and the authentication of Pu’er tea.

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When you manage your email through Google, the system automatically creates default folders for you, and although most of them make sense (Sent Messages really do contain emails that I have sent), there is a truly confounding folder labeled Important, which is where some of my email goes, and ALL of the emails I delete.*

* Yes, I have my settings set correctly, my deleted mail is set to go to the Trash. But whatever.

A folder labeled “Important” is confusing because that’s not how I work, I can’t even begin to fathom the agony of deciding what’s important and what’s not, because importance is a matter of context. You can relegate something to be not important simply because you want to blow that person off, or you can say getting one’s buttocks and abs whipped into shape is of upmost importance.

Since Google’s Important folder seems to follow no apparent logic, the other day I got tired of it.** I deleted an email that had credit card info on it, and it somehow found its way to the Important folder so I seized the moment and deleted all the emails that were in there. Yes, all 19,000+ of them.

** Yes, I have recently found the setting where I can hide the Important folder, which just goes to show you its importance.

And suddenly a lot of my emails were gone. Not my Sent mail (they were in the Sent folder), and not the emails that I had filed to other folders, but the weird emails that were in the middle ground between save and delete, the ones I scroll past every single day and wish someone would just come and tell me what to do with them. And amongst this epic pile, only some, but not all of those emails were gone.

Did I freak out? Nah, I just got a little sad. OK, a lot sad. If a company creates an Important folder for you, when you delete it, shit should really hit the fan. But nothing important was missing. I couldn’t remember anything that I was going to miss having around. Invites to events, notice of stores having sales, or links to dumb articles were resent by whoever, re-spawned into my Inbox like sea monkeys. All those 19,000+ emails were stupid. Email is stupid.

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The other day someone from a fancy ass hotel in Beverly Hills called up a friend of mine, looking for an expert on Pu’er tea.

Apparently the cleaning lady at the hotel tossed out a very special guest’s stash of Pu’er tea, which, to any normal person, does look like a clod of dirt.

The guest either threw such a fit, or was so special that the hotel was considering replacing the tea, or at least finding out whether it was something they wanted to do.
My friend asked whether they knew what kind of Pu’er it was, and they told her that the guest said the tea was from the 1920’s, and sent some photos. The guest had quite a few tea cakes from this era, and the wrapping on them looked old and dirty.

A little history here: aged Pu’er is one of the most sought after teas and certainly the most faked. An authentic Pu’er tea from the 1920’s is most likely a fake or impossible to replace, and probably wouldn’t have buddies from the same period. Authenticating Pu’er is hard but understanding that the history of tea and the history of China go hand in hand is the first place to start.

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– Before 1949 (invasion by Japan, Chinese civil war) the Pu’er producers were family owned, and used no wrapping.
– After 1949, with the establishment of the Communist party, state ownership took over with 4 major Pu’er companies, each with specific brands on their wrappers.
– After 1970, an agricultural entity takes control and starts production of Pu’er under the name of Seven Sons. At this time there is a proliferation of private label teacakes, a lot of family farms and suddenly everyone has a different wrapper and a different name and a different recipe, leading to a lot of confusion.
—End of history lesson—

Here’s the funny part.
The photos that were sent from the hotel guest were of tea wrapped in none other than the Seven Sons label, which started circa 1970. A 1970’s Pu’er is nothing to sneeze at, but unless you taste the tea, you don’t know what year it’s from, as Seven Sons Pu’er is still manufactured today.

So, 1920’s Pu’er tea my foot, or my ass, or my Google Important folder.

Here’s a commemorative Pu’er from the People’s Liberation Army on its 80th anniversary. This one is real. It’s from 2008. The friend who gave it to us had a relative who was a general.

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Why does tuo cha always suck

In our last trip to Yunnan we asked our teamaster Vesper Chan to make us some Tuo Cha that does not suck. He came through, and for a blustery Sunday afternoon there’s nothing better than a mini tuo cha taste test.

We haven’t priced our mini tuo’s yet, but we were in the neighborhood so we picked up a tin of Peet’s Ancient Trees Organic Pu’erh tea. The free cup of coffee doesn’t hurt.

At first I took issue with the back of the tin in the form of brewing instructions:

I’m averse to the ratio (8 grams to 12-16 ounces or water) as well as the steeping for 4-5 minutes. Seems watery and sludgy at the same time, but as a general rule i try to follow the instructions on the package at least once, just not today.

Today the test is 5 grams in a gaiwan (roughly 3 ounces water)

Peet’s sells theirs in 8 grams, and our comes in 5 so i had to whack off a little bit for a fair test.

For those that are interested in using the wrapper to draw on, the Peet’s size is larger and has a noticeable texture.

Our tuo cha was a little floral, a little red date flavor, a little thick, and very clean. Smell and taste wise, the Peet’s is exactly like Melba Toast, or some dry rye cracker. This toastiness is perhaps what people like about it, but it doesn’t seem like Pu’er to me. After four brewings it started tasting very watery. This is where i take issue with the front of the tin:

There’s no way in hell this tea is made from anything close to ancient tea trees. No viscosity, no brewing stamina, no age. I’ve a special place in my heart for Peet’s coffee that i will always defend, no matter how damn dark they like to roast their beans, but please, don’t say it’s ancient tea trees when it’s modern melba toast.

The process of making tuo cha is pretty rough on the leaves, but just for comparison, here’s ours.

TRUST

In this part of the world it’s hard enough to tell if you’re paying the right price for things, or whether you’re getting what you think you’re getting, but in China such worries can send you down the path to pure madness.

How do you know the quality of your hotel?
Four star hookers admiring the wood carvings in the lobby, free condoms in the rooms, clear glass separating the bed from the bathroom (with optional “modesty light” switch), and the number of people it takes to track down the Tech Guy, the one and only person who knows the wireless password.

How do you know the quality of your Pu’er tea? Was it picked from wild trees, ancient arbor, eco trees or mass production hedges?

It’s supposed to be logical by price, as explained here, but we all know better.

We live in a world of Swedish horsemeat-balls, 100% cold-pressed Italian olive oil made from Greek olives, and big fish made from many little fish. In China, if you take all the Pu’er drunk each year and sum up the years that the tea has been “aged,” you’ll get more years than the entire history of China’s existence, Imperial, Communist or otherwise.

Sure you can sit and actually taste it, but better buy it right then and there because that way you make sure the tea you buy is the tea you just drank. Though there’s always the chance they have placed good tea on the top of the bag, sitting on a mound of crappy tea, and when they scoop the tea for you, they dig deep down into the middle of the bag. My test for whether I over paid or not? Call back that evening and say you lost your hat or something and was wondering if you left it there. If they’re having a raging party, there’s your answer.

At some point you have to decide everyone in the country is on crack, or you just toss your dibs in and TRUST someone. Trust goes a long long way, in any culture, and it helps you sleep at night. But it’s also a moving target. You have to know when to smell a rat, but you have to embrace someone, somewhere, in order to learn the first thing about what these teas are supposed to taste like. Trust first, hold no grudges, and always know where your Pu’er comes from.

Of course if you’re still stressed out and develop high blood pressure China has a bunch of offerings to help you with that. This medicine for the flu cost $7 in Hong Kong, and when we found it in Guangzhou it was $2. Sure the packaging was different but the hologram sticker looked real enough. We didn’t die after drinking it, and it turns out it was the real thing, what a deal.

There’s the rare tea-stuffed pomelo.

The rare tea-stuffed bitter melon.

There’s the ultra-rare crab claw vine that grows only on tea trees that are over 200 years old. So in one shot you get proof of the age of the tea tree at the same time as you expel your own toxins.

Beware! This one’s a fake! Bastard red font!

When fate strikes in China

Pu’er might be the only tea that hurts when it hits you, but watch out when the Chinese concept of fate, “Yuan,” comes hurtling your way.

Like Schrodinger’s cat, you can’t go looking for Yuan, and when it does happen, how it manifests depends on your attitude at the moment of its appearance.

Our tea master Vesper Chan had a pretty good nose in 1992 when he tasted a tea that no one else was interested in buying. He decided to purchase the entire lot, some 30 tons of it, at something like 8 RMB a cake. Here’s a photo of the guy he bought it from, after being asked what he thought about the current selling price of 48,000 RMB.

The funny part? Our dear tea master kind of sold his lot too soon, he got the fame of having sniffed out this unbelievable tea, but didn’t score as big as he could have.

On our recent trip to China last month, my friend Linda wanted to meet face to face with James, the guy who does her printing. He had recently screwed up an order, and she wanted to decide whether to give him a second chance. Turns out James agreed not only to reprint the order for free, but he showed up with correctly printed samples and also offered to take us to the airport.

Turns out James planned for us to taste an organic crysthanamum tea his friend produced, and insisted that checking in only a half hour before the flight time would be okay.

Turns out James was wrong. But he insisted that the fact we missed our flight was meant to be (ahem), as in we weren’t allowed to leave the city until he had a chance to take us out for dinner.

So we got treated to goose-in-a-wok BBQ AND a foot massage.

Here’s how the goose started,

and as you eat it the goose continues to cook until at the end of the meal you’re left with goose and scallions BBQ’ed into pure crispy deliciousness. (That yellow stuff in the bowl that looks like soup? One of the few things in the world I’ve met that I could not stomach. Ug)

The foot massage played out exactly like the goose BBQ. It started with a neck and shoulder massage, a brief neck-cracking session, twists and backbends over the masseuses’ knees, cupping and foot massage, and then they poured alcohol on a towel on our backs and lit us on fire.

Since we were all on fire, no one was left to document the event, so here’s a video that pretty much captures it. The video also advises against getting this treatment done if you’re “mind confused,” but it’s a little late to worry about that now.

We managed to make the flight to Xixuangbanna on time the following day, and traipsed around the tea mountains visiting some really old trees.

In Nan Nor we bought some loose 2013 Pu’er, and just as we were pondering how we were going to get the fluffy delicate tea back home, we found out that the owner of our mountain inn, Mr. Chen, aka the Chinese Patrick Swayze, just happened to have a stone press for making Pu’er bricks, and he graciously turned our pain-in-the-ass bags of tea into compact bricks.

At dinner that night at the inn there was a group of men from the Ai Ni ethnic minority drinking local moonshine and toasting each other (“Sai sai sai!”). I just happened to be traveling with Jeni “Gimme Some of that Moonshine” Dodd so us gals sauntered over to give the other table a toast. This is not what you’d call common in China. Women don’t usually initiate a toast, much less take a drink with a table full of strangers, but hey, moonshine is moonshine.
In return they shared a traditional Ai Ni drinking song:

The evening ended with a some more singing, Patrick Swayze belted out some Dai minority love songs that made Jeni Moonshine cry, Linda showed all of us that if her tea business failed she could make a living as a singer, and Jeffrey played the guitar while reading the chords ad hoc off my iPhone. Turns out everyone knew the words to Hotel California. The look on their faces when we told them that Linda and I were actually from California was pure Y-U-A-N, though I was a little worried the way Patrick Swayze sang “And you can never leave…”

PS. One of the guys was a Beijing official, not from the Ai Ni tribe, and I wanted to ask him exactly why Facebook was blocked in China, but the following morning when I saw him at breakfast he was wearing cute flannel PJ’s so I changed my mind.

What’s new (and old) in the tea world

Ten years ago we stumbled upon a tea house in Guangzhou called the Best Tea House Co. Ltd. The owner had an amazing place in a park complete with lake front Pu’er storage and blooming ozmanthus and olive flowers for enhanced seasoning.
Turns out not only did he look like Chevy Chase he’s also a fake. Well not really a fake but a fraud, which is actually an important distinction in China because it’s a question of provenance rather than reality. In China you generally get the product you ask for, just not necessarily the exact thing you ask for. For example if you ask for 20 year old Pu’er you’ll get Pu’er but it will be made in the “20 year old style” rather than be actually 20 years old.

The Chinese Chevy Chase apparently kyped the company name of a very famous Pu’er master from Hong Kong named Vesper Chan (yes). I guess Mr. Chan didn’t really think it was a big deal until relations between HK and the mainland improved and he was offered a retail space in the Canton Tower and realized he couldn’t trademark his own company name.

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So it’s total fate that we became friends with someone in Los Angeles who actually studied from Vesper Chan so we could visit the real Best Tea House Co. Ltd.

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So what’s new in the tea world?
Everywhere you see tea kettles that are attached to spigots that pump water from a five gallon jug on the floor into the kettle. No more need to tip the water boy. Hit one button and water streams through a hole in the lid and, I’m not sure if all of them do this but they stop filling when the pot is full.

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What’s old in the tea world?
Here’s Master Chan with a photo of a 3200 year old tree (think Warring period, before the unification of China) and one of the tea cakes he pressed from the leaves of that tree. He had the rights to the leaves from that tree for ten years, but then some sugar company came along and…defrauded him…whacking his ten years down to six. Like I was saying…

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Hong Kong’s other ear

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In 2001 when I spoke Mandarin in Hong Kong the people ignored me or replied in Cantonese.

In 2003 when I spoke Mandarin in Hong Kong they replied in Mandarin.

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China’s economic boom had turned the bumpkin next door into a rich relative. I thought everyone had just gone to language school. My HK friend told me they called it “opening the other ear.”

Now in 2013 when I speak Mandarin in Hong Kong they try to ignore me, but then reluctantly reply in Mandarin. The ever-fatter and ever-richer relative just won’t go away.
What a world of difference flashing a US passport makes. With that gold eagle I am converted from an annoyance into a tourist, speaking Mandarin as if its not my fault.

It’s not like I’m going to start wearing the stars and stripes everywhere like the Canadians do in Europe with the maple leaf (for the exact opposite reason) but it sure is nice to pull out the California dialect when politics rears its ugly head.

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This morning in the train station I tried to take a photo of a poster informing travelers of just how many kilos of milk powder one was allowed to take out of Hong Kong. The guard came over and said no photos in Cantonese and I said “Oops sorry!” He then went to his post and returned with a couple of flyers in English explaining just how many kilos of milk powder one was allowed to take out of Hong Kong. So nice! (FYI-limit is 1.8 kilos, with possible $6000 fine or two years jail)

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So, if China is Hong Kong’s fat relative with unruly nose hairs, then Macau is the bastard step child. Overshadowed by size, population, historical importance and even in the economic status/seaworthy might of its European colonializer (what is the term for the “empire that colonizes?”) Macau loses on all fronts. I didn’t even know Macau was handed over to their own government AFTER 1997, when Hong Kong was retuned to China. I thought Portuguese control was something from the past, a novelty almost, until I arrived and there’s Portuguese on all the signs. Not just at the airport and in the tourist areas but all the freeway, information, and any official looking signs.

Like all good island countries Macau has a truly awesome baby suckling pig dish. Like all good Chinese communities they know how to turn the skin into the most mouthwatering salty crispy wafer.

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Its obvious the Portuguese influence in Macau dating back to the 1600’s was substantial:

– sidewalk design
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– bus maneuverability skills

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– desserts: my hunt for the Pasteis de Nata and the double skin milk makes Macau sort of an old home.

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But the Chinese culture fights backs for prominence:

– beef jerky graphs

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– Macau’s most famous almond cookie producer is on every single corner, selling cookies, orange peel, ginger candies, jerky, mushrooms and cancer fighting herbs. Their secret? Free samples.

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– the taming of the wild lettuce

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– photography as sport

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– casinos

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The “Asian Las Vegas” is now home to MGM, Wynn, and the timeless Sands. But the weirdest thing? Of all places the casinos are just about the quietest buildings on the continent. No screaming, no ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Just heavy perfume, auspicious felt-scraping techniques, and little ditties from the slots that seem directed for your ears only (opened up or not)

Maybe it’s me, I haven’t been to Vegas since before they went digital and definitely when there were still places on the strip to play one-deck blackjack, but something about the place (I mean, this is the Wynn) seemed eerie and sad.

The people who work there are locals, or from nearby Guangzhou, and have real lives totally disconnected to the world of casinos. What they do is actually a performance, which requires quite an effort, so when random stuff happens, things outside their training course, they revert to their normal selves.
(As a woman visiting Japan a few years ago I was served last everywhere we went except for at a “French” restaurant where the staff performed their managers idea of “westernness” and let the ladies sit first, order first and get served first)

In a county where so many people have no running water they know how to pour Perrier. In a country where everyone packs their own toilet paper they know how to place silk napkins on the ladies’ laps.
But ask them how the slots work and they go fetch their coworker who fetches another coworker who fetches another coworker until there are no more. Ask them how come they want us to make a reservation five minutes before the restaurant opens even though there’s no one else waiting and we’re all here standing around, and they smile and ask us for our name, please. Forget about asking how come they provide wireless in the restaurant but not in the adjacent lounge area.

I was reminded of two friends we made traveling in China ten years ago, Rainbow, a single mom working in a tea shop, and Gao Bei, a twenty something that had defied her parents by leaving home and working in an ad agency. It could be them working at the Wynn, Rainbow with her designer jeans and Gao Bei in fake eyelashes, and thinking about them and their lives made my five-spice-thai-hot-sauce cocktail more than just a mandatory thing.