The Noodle Makers and Sculptors of Meishi Street -- creative nonfiction by Jinhan Li
A large part of the Qinghai Province is prairie, and its inhabitants usually live in tents because they have to move constantly for the food of their livestock. The herdsmen often live in small bands, and their tents scatter across the swath of open land.
We travel by car around Qinghai Lake, whose shore, grasslands and Brassica flowers alternate across the fields. Without much pollution and industry, the sky and lake are light blue with the absence of clouds. Sometimes, several herdsmen in their red and blue gowns with different traditional symbols can be seen walking with white yaks on the side of the road. We drive along a highway built along the lake.
And then, we enter Xining. At the entrance of the street, a “paifang”, traditional Chinese archway, glimmers with the description “Meishi Street”. The architecture is classical Chinese, with stone pavement laden roads. Wooden trolleys have been turned into stalls. On both sides of the streets, tall buildings and malls make the street stand out among its surroundings because of the contrast between modern and classic.
The snack sellers have their familiar spot to sell their products on the sides of the street. The sellers come with bottles and cans of ingredients on their trolley when the sun has set. The vendors usually sell Liangfen, Niangpi, meat skewers, and other kinds of local snacks. Liangfen, which directly translates to “cold noodles”, is eaten cold. It appears like strips of jelly and has a spicy taste. Usually, some chili oil and vegetables are added into it. Also, they cook a special soup with various organs of sheep. Although it looks messy, both the mutton and the soup are delicious.
Some snacks that we are familiar with have different variations here, such as yogurt. The local people make special kinds of yogurt with yak milk. It has a yellow surface and the white yogurt below has a fixed shape. After dinner, tourists and local people usually walk to Meishi Street and stop by the stalls to eat.
As soon as they open for business, the vendors place their noodles in the dishes to cool down, the meat skewers emitting a smell of barbecue that wafts along the street. While buying Liangfen, I ask the cook how long he has been making this. He is an old man with gray hair, talkative and full of energy. He tells me he has been selling Liangfen for several decades and only recently he moved to this street because this street attracts more customers. He talks about all the techniques from experience to make Liangfen more delicious such as the special ratio between water and starch, while cutting the noodles from the big jelly slowly and putting them one by one in the dishes. I notice that people here are not in a hurry for anything, and smiles arch across people’s faces. When the dim yellow street lamp is lit, the light brings warmth. While walking, I see a couple take their kid out for a walk. They hold the child’s hand and wander down the street together. Local revelers huddle in groups, tapping the trolley with their fingers. Life here is rather slow-paced, and people have a lot more leisure.
However, what impresses me the most is the delicate sculpture made with flour. It has the form of different mythical characters in traditional Chinese mythology, such as the Monkey King and Nezha. They are characters from the famous story “Journey to the West”. Many people like the Monkey King because of its rebellious spirit. And the sculpture in front of me is very colorful and vivid with all the details. It carries its weapon - Jingu Bang which is an elastic stick, on its back, and stares into the distance.
I’m very fortunate to get the chance to observe the process of making these sculptures, which are made from colorful dough - very similar to plasticine. Although it can’t be seen from the finished product, the sculpture actually has many layers, which contain all the body parts of the work. The main body is the deepest layer, and the clothes, eyes, noses are created by putting different colors of the layer on the main body part. After a few kneading, the dough takes the shape of a monkey. As the sculptor’s hands pick up and attach the other colors of dough, a vivid monkey appears. All the color combinations match with the Monkey King that we usually see in comic books, and the sculptor shapes them all from memory. He explains the special ability that monkey kings have in the story to the kids around him, who are fascinated by these sculptures.
I buy a sculpture and converse with him. He is very old and learned to make these sculptures from his parents. I’m surprised that he doesn’t make these for a living, but due to more complex reasons. He perceives the skill of making these as an important traditional value that he inherited from his parents. However, his children aren’t very interested in it. Although he is very disappointed, he respects their opinion. But he still wants more people to know and appreciate their culture, and that’s the reason why he opened this sculpture stall on the snack market. Everytime he is surrounded by children and their happy faces, he feels assured and satisfied.
Through these experiences, I suddenly realized the importance of my culture, and our obligation to preserve it. As of now, I can still remember what the sculptor said to me “I am living and working to conserve the dough sculptures. I don’t just live to survive.”
Jinhan Li is an 11th grade student currently studying in the Philippines. “The Noodle Makers and Sculptors of Meishi Street” is based on his trip to western China during summer vacation. He enjoys to write about his travel experiences. Aside from writing, he is also very passionate about Mathematics.