Chuan’r and Peace

While other food doc­u­men­taries might take a more holis­tic ap­proach, The Story of Chuan’r fo­cuses on skew­ered, roast morsels, telling the story of China’s most pop­u­lar street food in a down-to-earth style

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Xie Ying and Zhou Tian

Apile of steam­ing skew­ers on a grill in front of a shabby street stall, sev­eral small ta­bles sur­rounded by all sorts of peo­ple bit­ing and munch­ing meat and gulp­ing down beer, the stall owner stand­ing in the swirling smoke, greet­ing reg­u­lar cus­tomers as they call out their or­ders. It's a fa­mil­iar scene on streets all over China, es­pe­cially on hot sum­mer nights. Af­ter a day of hard work or study, many long for a de­li­cious but ca­sual din­ner, and shun the idea of a big feast in a fancy res­tau­rant in fa­vor of a few chuan’r (the Chi­nese term

for skew­ered food) from an out­door stall. A new Chi­nese doc­u­men­tary, The Story of Chuan’r, ex­am­ines this “yan­huoqi” chuan’r cul­ture.

Yan­huoqi lit­er­ally means “the at­mos­phere of smoke and fire.” Smoke and fire are in­dis­pens­able for cook­ing the food on which hu­mans per­sist, and those near to it are grounded in the real world, as op­posed, per­haps, to those who have oth­ers cook for them out of sight.

Chuan’r are the per­fect metaphor for yan­huoqi, says Wang Hai­long, the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of The Story of Chuan’r, not only be­cause fire and smoke is the phys­i­cal fea­ture of chuan’r, but be­cause they evoke a nat­u­ral and lively at­mos­phere. The dis­tance dis­solves be­tween peo­ple as they sit around a ta­ble munch­ing chuan’r to­gether, with lit­tle re­gard for each oth­ers' dress, pos­ture, ap­pear­ance or iden­tity – chuan’r are a great lev­eller.

Un­like other Chi­nese food doc­u­men­taries like CCTV'S A Bite of China which fo­cused on grand sto­ries, The Story of Chuan’r re­mains down-to-earth, and presents food and the peo­ple eat­ing it in a sim­ple style in­tended to ap­peal to ev­ery­day peo­ple.

Ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from Bili­bili, which broad­casts the doc­u­men­tary, it gained more than 30 mil­lion views when the sixth and fi­nal episode aired in late July, and on Douban, China's ver­sion of Rot­ten To­ma­toes, it is rated nine out of 10.

Chi­nese chuan’r cover a range of foods – nearly any­thing that can be skew­ered and roasted can be one, from pork legs to chicken hearts, lamb chops to lamb tes­ti­cles to beef brisket. Veg­eta­bles, fruits, eggs and even in­sects are on the menu. As the doc­u­men­tary shows, it's a fine art bal­anc­ing ma­te­ri­als, tools and tech­niques: the skew­ers, the grill, the heat con­trol – all de­mand pre­ci­sion to avoid wreck­ing the fla­vor.

Due to the var­ied tastes, low cost, and the re­laxed and lively din­ing at­mos­phere it cre­ates, chuan’r can be found in nearly ev­ery cor­ner of China. But as ur­ban man­age­ment and pol­lu­tion con­trol ef­forts ac­cel­er­ate, out­door chuan’r stalls are in de­cline. Although some have moved in­doors, some din­ers feel that they are less au­then­tic, and less yan­huoqi.

Wang says this is his main rea­son for mak­ing the doc­u­men­tary se­ries. “Chuan’r may dis­ap­pear one day, and nobody would have ever recorded them,” he told Newschina. He in­vited Chen Yingjie, a CCTV doc­u­men­tar­ian and a lover of chuan’r, to col­lab­o­rate on the project. Over sev­eral months the pro­duc­tion team vis­ited nearly 500 chuan’r stalls in 32 prov­inces and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, choos­ing 30 stalls to make a six-episode doc­u­men­tary. Each episode is themed, such as “ke­babs,” “skew­ered veg­eta­bles,” and “chuan’r with bones.”

“We wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, not the stereo­typed shoot­ing and nar­ra­tion that other sim­i­lar doc­u­men­taries do,” chief director Chen told Newschina. “So we took some risks in se­lect­ing the di­rec­tors of each episode. Work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was not as im­por­tant as hav­ing di­rec­tors from in­side the world of chuan’r, who had a clear idea of the dis­tri­bu­tion of var­ied chuan’r and their char­ac­ter­is­tics,” he added.

The di­rec­tors did not dis­ap­point. Us­ing unique nar­ra­tion and shots, they con­vey the char­ac­ter­is­tics of chuan’r over a cool sound­track.

The “bones” episode stands out – di­rected in a hard, sharp style which made the process into a com­pe­ti­tion, us­ing rock mu­sic and many close-ups to cre­ate a feel­ing of tear­ing and gnaw­ing. Even the nar­ra­tion was full of strength.

“It makes you for­get the whole world, and noth­ing but the chop greets your eyes... You put your head down and gnaw on it... You will not feel at peace un­til there is only a clean bone left,” the voiceover said of a stall sell­ing lamb feet and chops in Ningxia Hui Au­ton­o­mous Re­gions in China's north­west.

When shoot­ing a hard-to-find chuan’r stall in an old shabby street of Harbin, in North­east China, the director cre­ated retro scenes with an abun­dance of dark col­ors and grave mu­sic, lead­ing the viewer to say they felt like they were watch­ing a 1930s spy movie.

There are many in­ter­views with din­ers. “It feels like re­turn­ing home... When I am away, I only miss my mother and chunks of meat,” one young man says of the pork skew­ers sold at a street stall in Daliang­shan, Sichuan Prov­ince.

“They [the in­ter­vie­wee and the chuan’r] are like an old cou­ple. I re­ally miss it if I'm away for a cou­ple of days,” said a mid­dle-aged man at a stall sell­ing hand-made tofu skin (sheets of bean curd) in Jinzhou, Liaon­ing Prov­ince.

“You pull off one arm of the cray­fish, and suck up the juice in­side in one go. OK, no need to talk about other foods,” said one diner, ex­plain­ing how to eat a roast cray­fish at a stall in Fuzhou, Fu­jian Prov­ince.

An­other man, who fre­quents a stall sell­ing beef brisket in Yueyang, Hu­nan Prov­ince, goes into even more de­tail. He de­scribes how the chuan’r makes him feel as it en­ters his mouth, as he chews it, af­ter he swal­lows it, as though de­scrib­ing an ex­pen­sive per­fume's top, heart and bot­tom notes.

There was much au­di­ence in­ter­ac­tion. Au­di­ence com­ments shown in­stantly on the screen in­cluded “I'm hun­gry,” “It was so stupid to watch this doc­u­men­tary at night,” “I'm drool­ing” and at the end of each episode, “Thank you for the meal.”

But some asked whether the scenes and din­ers' words were in­tended as advertising.

Chen re­but­ted this, say­ing they im­pose strict qual­ity re­quire­ments on their sub­jects – their stalls must have stood the test of time and the own­ers must have per­sis­tently pur­sued qual­ity. “We would sniff out these stalls like a de­tec­tive track­ing down tiny clues to break a case, and some of the stalls made it to the screen purely due to luck,” he said.

At one point, the team was run­ning around Hongluo County, Liaon­ing Prov­ince, in search of a stall sell­ing hand-made tofu skin. They were guided to a re­mote vil­lage known for the food, but were left un­sat­is­fied with the san­i­tary con­di­tions there. About to give up hope, a mas­ter tofu skin maker ap­peared when Chen's wife hap­pened to ask an el­derly man pass­ing by her car “who is the most skilled at mak­ing tofu skin here?”

“Me,” he an­swered.

‘Treat It as Your En­emy’

Chen Yingjie de­scribes the stall own­ers as “grass-roots he­roes.” It is a phrase col­ored by jianghu, a Chi­nese term orig­i­nat­ing in mar­tial arts which de­scribes the world out­side of gov­ern­ment and of­fi­cial­dom, where peo­ple fol­low a set of nat­u­ral rules and value jus­tice, per­sis­tence, loy­alty and brother­hood.

This jianghu world, like the world of chuan’r, is char­ac­ter­ized by yan­huoqi. The food is in­ex­pen­sive but de­li­cious and pro­vides a place for din­ers to deepen their kin­ship and “de­vour meats and gulp drinks” like a gal­lant swords­man in a Chi­nese kung fu novel.

The pro­duc­tion team thus opted for a jianghu- style voiceover, and they also re­placed the pro­fes­sional nar­ra­tor they had orig­i­nally in­tended to use with Chen, whose voice is low and husky.

“The pro­fes­sional voiceover was too clean and plain,” ex­plained Wang Hai­long.

The nar­ra­tion, too, is unique. “To eat chuan’r to­gether is like a rev­elry fol­low­ing a rush be­tween gang­lands,” “Brother Biao [a chuan’r cook] is the qui­etest man in the neigh­bor­hood, but he can roast any­thing,” “Brother Wu's roast crabs make a tem­po­rary truce be­tween din­ers who suck the juice with joy,” and “You have to gnaw the lamb

chop with ha­tred. Treat it as your en­emy.”

De­scrib­ing how a stall in Changchun, Jilin Prov­ince, whisks its potato skew­ers out of a big fur­nace to avoid be­ing over-cooked, the doc­u­men­tary re­sorts to mar­tial arts lan­guage. “The long hook is the arm and you must make the hook and your body one sin­gle unit for speed.”

“Wow! That is the zenith of kung fu just as a swords­man in­te­grates him­self with his sword,” one au­di­ence mem­ber com­mented in real time.

“The voiceover is amaz­ing,” “The nar­ra­tion is so im­pres­sive and mag­i­cal,” “Who wrote the words for this voiceover? Marvelously tal­ented,” were the com­ments scrolling through­out ev­ery episode.

In the jianghu of chuan’r, the cooks are like mar­tial arts masters, while the din­ers are like roam­ing swords­men or or­di­nary peo­ple. Chi­nese peo­ple of­ten de­scribe those who work out­side the home­town as “drift­ing in jianghu.”

“In my eyes, ev­ery swords­man in el­e­gant, flow­ing white clothes [the typ­i­cal Chi­nese im­age of a jianghu hero] should hold a ke­bab in their hand,” a diner joked at a stall next to a mid­dle school in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Prov­ince. Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­men­tary, the stall has been there for more than 30 years, wit­ness­ing groups of stu­dent din­ers en­ter the school, grad­u­ate, ex­pe­ri­ence love and break-ups and even get in­volved in gang fights. Ac­cord­ing to the diner, they hold strong af­fec­tion for chuan’r, not only for their taste, but for the long-last­ing mem­o­ries.

“Chuan’r is not sim­ply food to fill an empty stom­ach. It adds fla­vors and mem­o­ries to a din­ers' life,” the fourth episode opens. Imag­ine when all the shops are closed and blacked out in the deep night, chuan’r stalls re­main for drift­ing jianghu peo­ple who gather and “gulp down de­pres­sion and dis­may.” Lit­tle won­der then that the pro­duc­tion team praises chuan’r as a good healer of heart­break at night and claims it plays a role so cen­tral to Chi­nese so­ci­ety that those who eat chaun’r to­gether share a yuan­fen, or pre­des­tined re­la­tion­ship.

Skew­er­ing Per­cep­tions

Chuan’r also con­nect din­ers to the cooks. Many chuan’r stalls shown in the doc­u­men­tary have been around for sev­eral decades and time has re­in­forced that bond. The stal­lown­ers re­mem­ber their reg­u­lar cus­tomers, some­times in­di­vid­u­al­iz­ing their or­ders based on their pref­er­ences. Some will even come out of re­tire­ment oc­ca­sion­ally to cook a few chuan’r for a cher­ished cus­tomer.

Con­cerned that they might dis­rupt the lives of their reg­u­lars, many stall own­ers stay in the same place and never change their phone num­bers, re­gard­less of the other big changes that rock their lives.

“I have to guard this stall,” a crab skewer seller in Jinzhou known as “Brother Wu” told the film­mak­ers, re­fer­ring to his daugh­ter's sug­ges­tion he should move and open a new store else­where.

The phrase struck a chord. “The word ‘Guard' shows his per­sis­tence, I think, his re­spon­si­bil­ity to his chuan’r and his stall,” re­marked one viewer on­line. “I un­der­stand the doc­u­men­tary's name now [the Chi­nese name is Ren­sheng Yichuan, lit­er­ally “Life Skew­ers”]. “We taste chuan’r and also taste life,” re­marked an­other.

That is ex­actly the point. Sev­enty per­cent of the shots are food, 20 per­cent are peo­ple, and 10 per­cent are sto­ries,” Wang Hai­long said. One of the di­rec­tors, Zhang Yuem­ing, agreed. “Peo­ple's sto­ries are like chuan’r sea­son­ing, and too much would seem too sen­ti­men­tal,” he said. “Chuan’r is a sim­ple food which does not match grand, sen­ti­men­tal nar­ra­tions,” he added.

The pro­duc­ers try to present life as it is. A cook's ob­ses­sion with the qual­ity of their chuan’r, a Sichuan cou­ple's per­sis­tence in the face of dwin­dling busi­ness, a Fuzhou stal­lowner's de­ci­sion to keep his mo­bile stall op­er­at­ing de­spite pres­sure from the lo­cal gov­ern­ment, and an­other claim­ing he dreams of be­ing the “King of Chuan’r.”

“They are or­di­nary peo­ple lead­ing an or­di­nary life that brings both hap­pi­ness and sad­ness,” Zhang said.

“Their striv­ing is touch­ing, and it is not nec­es­sary to pur­posely show the sad­ness which they did not tell us,” Chen said. Ac­cord­ing to him, most of the stall own­ers did not think that their lives were wor­thy of doc­u­ment­ing. But the way Chen sees it, he is do­ing a ser­vice by high­light­ing or­di­nary food and or­di­nary peo­ple.

Screen­shots from the doc­u­men­tary se­ries The Story of Chuan’r

Peo­ple eat chuan’r on the street as a wait­ress waits for or­ders

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