Graffiti, Spicy Noodles, and Feeling Homesick For China's Dying 'Punk City'

Wuhan is more than its residents' (allegedly) fiery tempers. It's also some pretty fiery dry noodles.
FH
translated by Felicia Huang
April 4, 2018, 10:15am

This article originally appeared on VICE China.

Every time I tell a Chinese person I’m from the province of Hubei, they will assume that I’m from its capital city, Wuhan. I’m not, though I have to go there every Lunar New Year, since that’s where my father’s family is from. I grew up disliking Wuhan, for no clear reason at all. In high school, 80 percent of my graduating class applied for universities in Wuhan, but not me. I thought Wuhan was too dirty and underdeveloped, and I chose a university 1,000 kilometers away instead. But one thing about the city keeps me coming back over the years: reganmian, Wuhan's signature hot dry noodles.

Moving to a different part of China, with a different dialect was unfamiliar was difficult at first. It wasn't that easy to make new friends. But most of all, I missed eating authentic and affordable reganmian whenever I wanted. Reganmian is the dish that connects everyone in Wuhan, regardless of their background. But it's more than bowl of noodles. The dish is constantly adapting with the times, making it a reflection of the mindset of city as much as it is an iconic dish.

Hot dry noodle and egg drop rice wine is a popular combo. Wuhan tofu skin on the side is also number one finger food.

During my university years, reganmian was a lot more difficult to find. The cafeteria on campus served a version of reganmian, but it was always missing the sour beans and hot radish. The dorms had some Dahankou, the famous brand of instant reganmian, which was popular among my roommates. Of course, there were some people who were put off by its sticky brownish sauce. Reganmian isn’t the prettiest dish. In those days, I was willing to sit on a two-hour bus trip just to find an authentic bowl of reganmian.

Dahankou at London’s Chinese market.

Later, I moved even further away from home. This time it was London. I took every Hubei local I met there to eat a bowl of reganmian, until one day I went to a restaurant that served reganmian that was made of… spaghetti. Never again.

My love for reganmian has influenced many of my friends to warm-up to this dish, though to this day, I’m still unable to change their opinions about Wuhan. A lot of people I know have refused to visit the city because of the reputation our city has as a place of hot-tempered, impatient people. From bus drivers to old noodle shop keepers, everybody in the city is labeled an unfriendly prick by people who've never even visited the city. The stereotype isn’t exactly inaccurate, I have to admit. But what can I say? We're just passionate people.

For all the bad rep that we get, people from elsewhere in China underestimate the open-mindedness of Wuhan… I think. There are a lot universities in Wuhan, which is why the city attracts so many young people from across the country. And because we're all heavily affected by the migration of people from the southern to the northern part of China, Wuhan locals are always open to new things. Ray, a Wuhan graffiti artist, tells me that when he’s working on a piece, people always approach him. Some of them are old; some others are much younger. There are grandmothers who roam on the street and help him to shoo away those who burn joss paper so that his graffiti won't turn black with soot.

“In another city [in China], this would have been reported,” he tells me of his work. “The tolerance in Wuhan is necessary for a new culture to flourish.”

And after a night of painting the streets, Ray, a true Wuhan local, usually goes to get a bowl of reganmian by the lake.

Reganmian on Wuhan public bus. (Picture provided by Superen)

A few years back, perhaps the most interesting thing about Wuhan were the blue walls surrounding construction sites, the 24-hour sprinkler cars washing the streets, and the never-ending road construction. But since then, Wuhan’s graffiti wall has taken the spotlight. In Wuhan, the graffiti subculture itself has gone through changes that are only possible because of the city's openness, Ray tells me. “The development of graffiti requires tolerance now," he says.

If Ray thinks Wuhan is getting better, Wu Wei, the lead singer of the legendary Wuhan punk band SMZB, thinks otherwise. In Wu Wei’s eyes, Wuhan has slowly lost its local character. The old shops are gone, and, today, Wuhan has become just like any other city.

“When I was in my junior high school, there was a person called Sanmao,” he says. “He sold very good reganmian. Every morning, the neighbors stood in long queues to buy his noodles. One day, a community police officer saw people lining up. He walked up to Sanmao and asked for a bowl of noodle for him. Sanmao glanced at him, and said, 'queue.' So the officer queued. Everyone laughed.”

But those days of are over, Wu Wei says.

Wu Wei’s band was formed in 1996, making it China’s first punk band. Wu Wei and Hujuan, the drummer, are the only steady members. The rest come and go. Wuhan was once China’s “punk city.” Today, SMZB is the last punk band left standing.

Wuhan Prison Bar on the Lumo Road. (Credits to Wuhan Prison Official Weibo)

Wuhan has changed a lot over the years. Some people are staying, but others don’t see anything that can keep them here.

I have a friend I’ve known for 20 years. His name is Ma Dongzi. Every time I see him, he tells me the same story of when he dumped a bowl reganmian on top of someone’s head in fourth grade. At that time, a bowl of reganmian only cost 50 cents.

Just like the majority of my high school friends, Dongzi went to a university in Wuhan because Wuhan was close to home. “At that time, Wuhan was so crowded, there were many cars, people, and it was so dusty,” he says. “However, the air quality was still not bad, unlike today when you can only see things within 10 meters.”

Ma dongjie won when representing Wuhan in the Shanghai BIS International Street Dancing Competition.